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Politics

gop debate

Rivals focus attacks on Romney, each other

The Republican presidential hopefuls debated tonight in Goffstown, N.H.

mike segar/REUTERS

The Republican presidential hopefuls debated tonight in Goffstown, N.H.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Hoping to stop his march to the nomination, Mitt Romney’s rivals sharply challenged his record running a Boston investment firm, accusing him tonight of slashing jobs in pursuit of profits.

But Romney strongly defended his business experience, saying his critics do not understand how jobs are created and that businesses sometimes fail.

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In the first debate since the Iowa caucuses affirmed Romney’s front-runner status and anointed Rick Santorum as a top challenger, Romney was at times put on the defensive. But his rivals, attempting to position themselves as the one who can beat the former Massachusetts governor, spent much of the time vigorously attacking each other. That spared Romney any intense, sustained scrutiny as he heads, with a wide lead, into the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

Santorum, fresh off his near-win in Iowa, opened the attack on Romney, charging that the former chief executive of Bain Capital lacks the background to handle foreign affairs.

“He says, ‘I’m going to be, you know, I’ve got business experience,’” Santorum said. “Well, business experience doesn’t necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief of this country.”

Newt Gingrich continued that line of criticism. The former speaker said that that while he supports free enterprise, “I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”

“I think it’s a legitimate part of the debate to say, ‘OK, on balance, were people better off or were people worse off by this particular style of investment?’” said Gingrich, adding that he had not yet seen a new documentary, done by a group supporting him, that attacks Romney’s record at Bain.

News of the documentary, to air as in the battleground state of South Carolina, was released just before the debate. The attacks target the core of Romney’s pitch of how he would turn around the economy.

Romney, who has performed smoothly in past debates, quickly parried the attacks and defended his claim that his work at Bain had helped create 100,000 net jobs. But not every enterprise succeeded, he said.

“We understand that, in the free economy, in the private sector, that -- that sometimes investments don’t work and you’re not successful,” he said. “It always pains you if you have to be in a situation of downsizing a business in order to try and make it more successful, turn it around and try and grow it again.”

Romney was spared further questioning of his business record when his rivals, sometimes acidly, began sparring with one another. As Romney looked on during one of the sharpest exchanges, Paul, an Air Force veteran, forcefully criticized Gingrich for not serving in the military while threatening military action against Iran.

“People who ... get three and four and five deferments have no right to send our kids off to wars,” Paul said. “I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least I went when they called me up.”

Gingrich bristled at that criticism.

“Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false,” Gingrich said, mentioning that his father served for 27 years in the military. “The fact is, I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child.”

“I was married and had two kids, and I went,” Paul shot back.

Last night’s debate was the first since Santorum’s near-win in the Iowa caucuses gave him his strongest chance to emerge as Romney’s chief rival.

With time running short before Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire and the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, Santorum and others have been under increasing pressure to make a credible case that they – not the former Massachusetts governor – should be the Republican nominee.

Perhaps more than in any other presidential election, the debates have been the driving force of the campaign, propelling some candidates into the top tier and all but destroying others.

Romney has rarely been flustered or knocked off message in past debates. After winning the Iowa caucuses by a whisker-thin margin, he holds a wide lead in New Hampshire, and has also jumped to a lead in socially conservative South Carolina. Hoping to solidify his conservative credentials, he campaigned earlier yesterday in New Hampshire with Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, who was elected in 2010 with significant Tea Party support.

By dint of his strong showing in Iowa, Santorum was moved last night from the wings of the debate stage – where he has been relegated for most of the race – to the center, right next to Romney. He has been intensifying his attacks on Romney, criticizing him for his wealth and for raising fees in Massachusetts.

In past debates, Gingrich has gained the favor of Republican voters by refusing to attack his rivals, and for criticizing the moderators for trying to bait the candidates into arguments. Last night, he also criticized the news media, but did not launch any sustained assault on Romney, as many had expected. On the campaign trail, the former speaker has been stepping up his attacks on Romney, calling him a “timid Massachusetts moderate” who paved the way for President Obama’s health care law by signing a similar law in Massachusetts.

His attacks have a personal edge: Gingrich lost his front-runner status under a barrage of negative ads in Iowa that were orchestrated by Romney’s former aides and allies.

Paul, who is second in New Hampshire polls although far behind Romney, has been a frequent target of criticism in past debates. The other candidates have said that his isolationist foreign policy and reluctance to consider military options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would put the US and Israel in danger. Paul has mostly shrugged off those attacks, saying the Constitution does not permit war without Congressional approval. His libertarian-leaning views have won him a devoted following but he has struggled to win over a broader audience of Republican voters. In recent days, he has been campaigning with his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a popular figure with Tea Party activists.

For Jon Huntsman, who has staked his candidacy on New Hampshire, the debate offered what could be his last chance to break through in the state. Much of the time, the former Utah governor focused on what qualities he brings, declining several opportunities to attack his rivals. Huntsman has spent more time in New Hampshire than any other candidate and has been hoping to do here what Santorum did in Iowa: surge rapidly at the end for a strong finish.

He, too, has been critical of Romney, attacking the former venture capitalist over his business experience and for saying, on several occasions, that “corporations are people.” Huntsman’s poll numbers have showed him rising but still in a distant second or third place in the state.

Last night, some of his sharpest comments came during an exchange about when to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He criticized Romney for deferring to military commanders on a timeline for withdrawal, arguing that the president must make that decision.

Rick Perry -- who considered dropping out after a disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa – has focused his campaign on South Carolina and didn’t hold any events last week in New Hampshire.

He has struggled in previous debates, making the some of the most memorable gaffs of the campaign, but has also been effective at getting under Romney’s skin on the debate stage. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he frequently attacked Santorum, accusing him of supporting wasteful spending.

Michael Bailey can be reached at m_bailey@globe.com

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